Ben Jones analyses the way in which India responded to historic levels of swing in Southampton.
The World Test Championship is a strange beast, in its current guise. A first draft at an unquestionably good idea, it’s suffered through its own scope at a time in history when brevity is key, when the ability to squeeze yourself into the schedule is king. With the impact of Covid-19, and the resulting sprawl of matches and meaning, it’s not been easy to hook into the progression of this tournament. Even calling it a ‘tournament’ feels like it should be done with a nudge and a wink, an acknowledgement of the oddity of it all. A large part of this competition has been spent working out quite what, and quite how much, it means.
Well, today we found out.
With India having lost the toss and been put into bat, Shubman Gill and Rohit Sharma were immediately thrust into a damp-grey worst case scenario. New Zealand’s series against England was an emphatic declaration not only of their quality (the first team to win in England since 2014), but their ability with the Dukes ball. In that series, their average swing (1.64°) was the sixth most by any team in any series since records began in 2006. One of the performances above them on that list was NZ themselves, in 2015 when they last toured England.
The last time that the Indian Test team toured England, we saw their captain Virat Kohli make a pronounced tactical choice. In 2018, he batted well out of his crease, making a conscious effort to negate the swing of James Anderson, Kohli asserting himself on the bowler who had dominated in their previous battles. His average impact point in 2014 has been 1.88m from his stumps; in 2018, it was 2.37m, almost half a metre further down the track. It worked, his average against the quicks going from 12.77, to 66.14.
Faced with a difficult challenge, he took a forward step – literally and metaphorically – and faced it head on. Today, under gloomy skies at the Rose Bowl, his openers did the same. Gill and Rohit responded by following the Kohli-template. The average impact point for India in the first 10 overs today was 2.24m; only once have India batted further down the track against the new ball, since records began.
It was an attacking move, a confident choice, and one which reflected the attitude of both sides. The New Zealand team selection – no spinner, all seamers, doubling down on their strengths – was the aggressive option, in the same way as India’s team selection was two days before. New Zealand’s bowling in the first hour, which saw more full deliveries than good length ones, was more of the same.
It was unequivocally aggressive; pitched up, looking for movement, inviting the drives. India’s willingness to accept that invitation may be the most obviously aggressive element of play in that opening passage, but the tone had been set. The average swing movement today (2.46°) is the most New Zealand have found in a Test innings since records began. Only four innings since 2006, from any team anywhere in the world, have swung more.
By batting out of their crease, India’s openers hoped to negate the swing and seam. It helped them to disrupt the lines and lengths of the grooved New Zealand attack. Up until drinks, India only attacked 14% of the balls bowled to them, but destroyed the balls they went after: 24 runs from 12 attacking strokes. India were facing hooping deliveries, from experienced operators, and dominating. In the first hour, up until drinks, India were able to just punish mistakes. They faced 29 good length deliveries, didn’t score off a single one of them, but still managed to go at 2.9rpo overall.
New Zealand didn’t have the speed in their attack to counter India’s strategy. There were options available to them – Watling could have come up to the stumps, against De Grandhomme, to force everyone back into their crease – but the obvious, first-choice option was not. And yet, that’s so often the way for New Zealand, and as is also so often the way, they worked it out. In typically canny style, they found a way around that limitation, as Kyle Jamieson hit Gill with a sharp bouncer, slamming into the grill. The height of Jamieson allowed him to compensate for the lack of speed, finding remarkable lift, but ultimately it had no obvious effect on Gill’s positioning – his interception point remained the same in the overs either side of being hit. It was gripping, gladiatorial cricket.
And then slowly, both sides looked down. The weight of the occasion began to yank of their intent, to drag those early exchanges back to something like Normal Test Cricket. New Zealand improved their lines a lot after 10 overs; Southee and Boult had struggled to maintain control and were only managing to get 55% of their deliveries in the channel, but that rose to 78% once that initial burst was over. Kyle Jamieson and Colin de Grandhomme saw that initial attacking impetus and knew some clarity was needed. Brozovic, Modric, Rakitic got hold of the ball. There was a clear move from the aggression of the early stages, to a more conservative approach.
Eventually, it was the tension between those attacking instincts and the intelligent leaving that had typified the start of his innings, which brought Rohit’s demise. The ball from Kyle Jamieson (which swung a staggering 3.7 degrees away from Rohit) was far more in the zone of deliveries which had been left up until this point, compared to the zone which had been attacked. Perhaps it was Rohit’s dominant instincts kicking in, trying to dispatch the first ball he’d faced from the new bowler; perhaps it was simply a case of being drawn by the movement. Either way, it marked a change of tone for the day.
Minutes later, his opening partner followed him back to the dressing room. The ball from Neil Wagner which dismissed Gill swung in 3.1 degrees, but then just seamed away 0.2 degrees. The swing made Gill play; the seam brought the nick. It was beautiful swing bowling from Wagner, who is so much more than the battering ram-role which has allowed him to demand a spot in this NZ XI.
As is often the way in these sorts of contests, when each side realised what was there to lose, they changed tack. The adrenalin falls away, nerves set in, and fear takes over. Conservatism beckons. What we have, we hold.
We saw strategies switch. Cheteshwar Pujara came in, and dead-batted his way to 0 (24) at the break. New Zealand went defensive, and India went with them, with four consecutive maidens from Colin de Grandhomme after lunch. The afternoon session brought 51 runs, at 1.8rpo. India’s false shot percentage, up at 20% in the morning, fell to just 12% .
You may not have spotted the retreat. While Kohli got off the mark with a cover drive so instantly recognisable he could sketch it onto his passport in place of his face, this was an innings typified by caution. Throughout the day, Kohli was batting out of his crease, but playing the ball under his eyes. Arriving early, but playing it late; getting the early train to the party, then waiting to arrive fashionably late.
Kohli didn’t play straight. That’s an underrated element of Kohli’s 2018 reinvention in England. On the 2014 tour, 31% of his runs came in the V; in 2018, it was 9%; today, it was 5%. As Kumar Sangakkara explained in commentary for the ICC broadcast, visiting batsmen are often told on arrival in England to play straight, and that this advice was “the worst he ever received”. The importance of playing later and going with the swing is just as key. Kohli illustrated this beautifully, leaning into the ball after it had finished its movement, persuading it into the gaps, suggesting it around the Rose Bowl.
The extent of India’s achievement today, dominated and best typified by their captain, is not to be underestimated. Our Expected Score models – built on historical ball-tracking data – make plain the extent of India’s challenge, and New Zealand’s quality. The deliveries that Williamson’s bowlers sent down would, if bowled to the average Test match line-up, have brought a score of 192-8. India’s approach after that initial charge dictated that they left runs out there, scoring below their expected total, but that caution has led to far fewer wickets than the bowling deserved. Add into that the elements of play which the model can’t consider – the on/off nature of the day, the pressure of such an occasion – and the picture painted is one of an excellent batting display. A watercolour may be apt, you’d suggest.
And yet ultimately, the most illustrative step of the day was a backwards one, as Kohli darted to the pavilion as the light-meter emerged from the umpire’s pocket. This wasn’t about vague notions of ‘putting on a spectacle’, or trying to artificially maintain a contest for the sake of wider perspective. This was Virat Kohli, and so guess what – it was about winning. It was about getting out of that day alive, having skilfully dodged the onslaught from an attack tailor made to exploit horrible conditions. It was about taking every inch, from wherever it came; swallowing your pride, and coming back alive the next day. That’s what the World Test Championship means.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.